Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

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Annie Christian

Annie Christian

(Featured Image: “The Number of the Beast is 666,” William Blake, 1805.)

As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.

“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.

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Let’s Work

Let’s Work

(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Work” 12″, 1982; L to R: Dr. Fink, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman. © Warner Bros.)

Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers and other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,” “Gym Class,” “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” “Rearrange,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut, New Wave-inflected funk of “Let’s Work.”

According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” He recorded the song, inspired by a dance he’d seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,”  with the intention of rush-releasing it as a non-LP single in the summer of 1981. But Warner Bros.–mindful, perhaps, of the moribund U.K. performance of his previous loosie, “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”–didn’t bite: a minor setback for Prince that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.

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She’s Just a Baby

She’s Just a Baby

(Featured Image: The Hookers, 1981; L to R: Jamie Shoop, Susan Moonsie, Loreen Moonsie. Photo stolen from Denise Vanity Matthews–the Tumblr, not the person.)

The Time’s first album was completed quickly, even by Prince’s ever-increasing standards: recorded in April 1981, mixed (at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles) by the end of the month, and released another three months later. In the meantime, the man behind the curtain was already devising a second group of protégés: an all-female counterpart to his first group’s male pimp aesthetic, charmingly named the Hookers.

In order to recruit his stable of Hookers, Prince stayed even closer to home than he had for the Time. He drafted his personal assistant, Jamie Shoop, who then-engineer Don Batts described as “a good-looking blonde… kind of a ballsy woman in a man’s world” (Nilsen 1999 63). The other two spots were filled by his girlfriend at the time, Susan Moonsie, and her sister Loreen.

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Roundup: The Time, 1981

Roundup: The Time, 1981

(Featured Image: Cover art for The Time, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

Folks, it’s been a whole-ass seven months since the last roundup post on Dirty Mind–where has the time gone? Dunno, but here at least is where the Time has gone (sorry): five posts on the first album by Prince’s first and arguably most accomplished protégé act. My ranking this time is decidedly anti-climactic, since I basically organized them in ascending order of preference as I wrote. And yes, the fact that I didn’t even devote a full post to “After Hi School” should give you an idea of where it would have ranked if I had. Anyway, here goes:

5. “Girl” Only the second song I’ve written about so far (after “With You” that I’ve actively disliked–but my dislike is really, really active. Apologies to the track’s defenders, but I don’t know which is more grating to me: Morris’ whiny lead vocal or Prince’s dog-howling-at-the-moon harmonies. I would have gladly taken an extra five and a half minutes of “Get It Up” over this.

4. “Oh, Baby” The best ballad on The Time purely by default. I actually barely remember this song even after having written 600 words on it. But I guess no memory beats bad memories, so Number 4 it is.

3. “Get It Up” Now we’re talking. The Time is the definition of an uneven debut album, with half of its songs among the worst things they ever recorded and the other half among the best; “Get It Up” definitely belongs to the latter half. The only reason it isn’t ranked higher is because it’s still missing the spark of unique personality that the remaining two songs manage to achieve; but if there’s a version with just Prince’s vocals locked away in the Vault, I need it yesterday.

2. “The Stick” Maybe the best song about dicks ever to be co-written by a lesbian? I dunno, don’t quote me on that, but a great song regardless, and a tongue-in-cheek preview of the auto-erotic innuendos Prince would take to the next level with “Little Red Corvette.” Plus, any opportunity for me to reference Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos has earned a special place in my heart.

1. “Cool” Maybe the definitive Time song–and certainly, as we explored, the one with the longest history in Prince’s career. Without “Cool,” Jerome would have never brought Morris that mirror–truly, an alternate timeline too terrifying to contemplate.

dirtymind-tagcloudtimeroundup

Another roundup post also gives us the opportunity to take another look at the ol’ tag cloud. The main change to note here is the debut of Kiowa Trail and Chanhassen, cementing (along with France Avenue/Edina) Prince’s lifelong presence in the Minneapolis suburbs. Also, Gayle Chapman is no longer among the top tags, having been replaced here as in Prince’s band by Lisa Coleman. Sorry, Gayle…but hey, if you ever wanna come on the podcast for an interview, we can try to get you back on the board. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the average length for these Time posts was, it was my lowest ever: a paltry 833 words, barely over half of the average post length for Dirty Mind. I make no promises that I’ll be as brief in the future.

Next week is the third anniversary of d / m / s / r (where has that time gone?), so I’ll hold off on the state-of-the-blog stuff until then. In the meantime, rest assured that I’ll keep plugging away, probably until we’re all dead. Onward to (the rest of) Controversy!